New hope for New Caledonia’s dry forest

Posted on December, 12 2018

On a tropical island in the Pacific, one of the world’s most endangered ecosystems is making a comeback.
“At the time, we did not know what the dry forest was,” recalls Claude Metzdorf, a livestock farmer from New Caledonia. “It was like any forest on the seashore, without any special value.”

In 1996, Claude and his father received a visit from Jean-Marie Veillon, a botanist from the French government Research Institute for Development (IRD). “He made my father and I aware that what we had was something important not only for us but for humanity,” says Claude. “We could no longer afford to bulldoze the forest to get the cattle in. So we agreed to protect it. We were the first to do so.”

That marked a turning point for one of the most endangered ecosystems on the planet. Two decades on, New Caledonia’s unique dry forest is on the road to recovery thanks to a long-term programme involving WWF and many partners – detailed in a newly WWF released report, Lessons Learnt from 17 Years of Restoration in New Caledonia’s Dry Tropical Forest.
Dry forests under threat
Worldwide, tropical dry forests receive far less attention – and protection – than rainforests, but they still contain a wide range of species, many of which are found nowhere else. These plants and animals have evolved a variety of ways to conserve water during the long dry season, when most of the trees shed their leaves. Today, though, tropical dry forests cover just 10 per cent of their historic range, mainly in small, fragmented patches.

New Caledonia, a French overseas territory in the Pacific Ocean, exemplifies both the value of dry forest and the threats it faces. Cut off from the rest of the world for millions of years, this remote archipelago has been classified as one of the world’s top biodiversity hotspots for its dry and moist tropical forests. Nowhere is this more apparent than in its dry forest, where a total of 366 plant species have been identified. Of these, 60 per cent are endemic, meaning they are found nowhere else on Earth. They include species with potential global significance, including a variety of wild rice with genes resistant to drought and plants with medicinal properties.

Dry forest once covered around half of Grand-Terre, New Caledonia’s main island. But by the late 1990s, 98 per cent of the original forest had been destroyed, leaving just a few thousand scattered hectares. The fragments that remained faced a range of threats, including further conversion for agriculture, urbanization, fire and invasive species.

Forest landscape restoration
In response, WWF launched a programme to help restore New Caledonia’s dry forest, in collaboration with local government, the French government and local people. The approach WWF promoted was “forest landscape restoration” (FLR) – rather than looking just to protect or replant individual sites, FLR works across whole deforested or degraded landscapes to restore the functions that forests provide. These include protecting water sources, stabilizing soils, pollinating crops and providing food and other materials, as well as providing habitat for biodiversity.  

Protecting and connecting New Caledonia’s remaining dry forest fragments is especially challenging as almost half are found on private land. The programme worked hard to persuade individual landowners like Claude Metzdorf and his father of the importance of protecting the dry forest on their land and to negotiate agreements with them. As a result, between 2000 and 2017, the area of dry forest fenced and protected from grazing animals like cattle and the invasive Rusa deer rose from 55.9 hectares (0.3 per cent of the total forest area) to 692 hectares (4 per cent).

While fencing off forest plots can allow the vegetation to regenerate naturally, other areas were actively replanted with a diverse mix of native trees, including endangered species. Over the 17 years of the programme, almost 180,000 saplings were planted, often through campaigns involving schools and local community groups. This sort of active restoration is challenging and expensive, though various methods have been trialled during the programme to make it cheaper and more effective. So far only 48 hectares have been actively planted, but the idea is for these restored areas to act as “stepping stones” across the landscape, promoting natural regeneration and providing corridors for animals.

Valuing the forest
At the same time, the programme has focused on increasing understanding of the value of New Caledonia’s dry forest – both scientifically and among local residents, including the indigenous Kanak people. A total of 68 plant species from the dry forest were studied and mapped, and submitted to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. This can support more effective conservation of rare and endangered species, like the native Pittosporum tanianum. Declared extinct in 1994, the plant has since been rediscovered and is now being bred in nurseries, with attempts to reintroduce it into the wild. Nurseries have mastered techniques for reproducing 18 rare and threatened plants from the dry forest. Garden centres now offer a wide range of dry forest species, and landowners are increasingly buying these to plant on their own properties.

While New Caledonia’s dry forest remains under huge pressure, the outlook is much more positive than it was 20 years ago. Today, the dry forest restoration programme is run by the Conservatoire d’Espaces Naturels (CEN), an independent organization established in 2011 which brings together different branches of local government, the French state and conservation organizations including WWF. CEN is aiming to increase the area of dry forest under protection and begin restoring 200 hectares by 2023, while reducing the costs involved.

Perhaps most encouragingly, New Caledonians have been inspired to take care of their unique dry forest.

Thibaut Bizien is the founder of local NGO Calédo'Clean, an association of young Caledonians that recently joined the dry forest restoration programme.

“We didn’t know the natural heritage in which we lived, and how exceptional it was,” he says. “For us young Caledonians, to engage in protecting it was also to reconnect with that nature, to build our identity as islanders, and to preserve what can be the source of the sustainable development we want.”
Gouaro Deva, New Caledonia.
© N. Petit / WWF
Restoration activities in New Caledonia.
© Nicolas Petit / WWF
New Caledonia.
© Nicolas Petit / WWF
Flora and fauna in New Caledonia's dry tropical forest.
© Nicolas Petit / WWF